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Winter
2009

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The Time Enforcer
B.L. Gifford

While the children remained inside the house doing whatever children do at birthday parties, Jab sat alone in a grimy, plastic lawn chair out back, falling in and out of daydreams, his old skin baking in the hot, acrid air. Jab had come to the party only after being warned that his granddaughter wouldn't be given his gift if he didn't show.

Still, knowing the girl's other grandfather, Dirt, would be there, Jab almost had not come. Dirt's given name, William Edward the IV, suggested royalty, and it drove Jab nearly mad when Dirt acted as if he actually was descended from kings. Jab had hung the other man's earthy nickname on him years ago to bring him down a notch. And the moniker fit. Dirt frequently appeared in photographs on the front page of the local newspaper standing next to a pile of dirt he had just moved with a shovel at another groundbreaking ceremony for one of his real estate developments.

As he dozed, Jab---too mellowed by age and experience to permit himself a truly vicious and thus satisfying thought---imagined Dirt stubbing his toe on one of those silver shovels. Perhaps he wouldn't make it this time. But he did. Dirt drove his shiny red sedan right into the backyard and laid on the horn, startling Jab out of his daydreams and causing the partygoers to spill out of the house to see what the ruckus was.

Dirt emerged from the car and shooed the children away, then called for a card table and a chess board. His son, Jab's son-in-law, obliged. With his perimeter established, Dirt sat down and called Jab over. Pretending not to notice, Jab stared across his daughter's backyard, through the gap between the bar and the bowling alley, over the railroad tracks and past the silos of the trash-burning power plant. There were so many dangers in the world. His granddaughter needed the protection of the time enforcer, and she needed it now.

Dirt called to him again.  A minute later Jab stood up, zigzagged across the yard to make it look like he had ended up at the table inadvertently, then sat down on the side of the black pieces.

Dirt spoke first.  "Where is this so-called time enforcer?"

"In here," Jab said, indicating the pocket on his shirt.  He took the time piece out. "I'm giving it to the girl for her birthday."

"We'll use it in the meantime," Dirt said.

Jab's own grandfather had made it for him. The time-enforcer was a cast iron King welded onto a metal spring, all sitting atop the convex side of a suction cup. After all these years the thing was still inexplicably precise.  Exactly five minutes after its compression, the suction would release with a pop, and the spring would recoil, sending the King into the air, signaling the end of your turn. It was Jab's fuzzy dice and lucky rabbit's foot all rolled into one. The time enforcer had saved him from a sniper's bullet in the war and from a heart attack a few years back. In exchange for every minute it saved during a game of chess, the time enforcer added ten-fold to Jab's life. With the good luck and long life it promised, it was going to be Jab's gift to his granddaughter for her eighth birthday.

Jab compressed the spring. It popped three times before Dirt made the first capture, taking one of Jab's Bishops with a Knight at the fifteen minute mark.

"Let's make it interesting," Dirt said. "And play for this thing."  He touched the time enforcer. Jab hesitated. "Unless," Dirt said, "you no longer have the cojones."

Jab grunted and pointed to Dirt's shiny red car. "If I win, I get that," he said. Dirt hesitated, then reached out his hand to seal the wager. Before accepting it, Jab called his daughter and son-in-law over to witness the transaction; otherwise the handshake would not have been worth the skin cells they exchanged in the process of making the bet.

"So Jab," Dirt said.  "We're old men now, and your medical coverage is not nearly as good as mine. "

"But I've got this," Jab said, touching the top of the time enforcer and compressing the spring.  "Check."

"Not for long, my man," Dirt said. He moved out of check and reset the time.

"When you give it to her she'll know where it came from."

"Who says I'm giving it to her?" Dirt said. "I'm going to put an end to your silly superstition. I'll bury it under the foundation of the next high-rise I build."

"You old jackass," Jab said.

"Speaking of," Dirt said, pointing toward the house. Dirt's son was herding the children into the backyard and was holding a donkey piñata from a stick. Jab laughed when he saw the piñata's red stripes because they matched the  fancy tie Dirt was wearing.

Jab made a move with his Knight and compressed the spring. He was just three moves away from checkmating Dirt. But he was growing tired. As he waited for Dirt's next move, he leaned his head down and rested it on his palm.

Once again, dreams overtook him. Dirt overthrew the government and installed himself as King. Jab led a revolutionary force to retake the government for the people, but Dirt's minions apprehended Jab and tied his hands behind his back. Dirt lifted a sword above Jab's neck and brought the sword down hard with a pop! Dazed but somehow still bearing his head on his shoulders, Jab sprung up and ran toward Dirt, pounding with hard punches what he thought was Dirt's tie-covered torso. Just as he was about to deliver the knock-out punch, Jab awoke to the squeals of children scurrying around him as they gathered up the candies he had liberated from the piñata. He realized then that the pop! he had heard was the time enforcer ending Dirt's turn. Jab hung his head as he returned to the card table. The children followed him, chattering as they went, wondering out loud what the old man would do next.

"What the hell?" Dirt said.

"Never mind," Jab said.  Fully awake now, he saw that Dirt had helped himself to a second move and that it was going to keep Jab from the checkmate in three moves he had planned.  "Your knight is misplaced," he said.

"Forget about it," Dirt said.

Jab reiterated the moves that had led to their prior position and showed Dirt how the Knight could not be in the space it now occupied.

"Let it go," Dirt said, smiling as he compressed the spring.

Jab raised his hand high up above the board, preparing to upset the order of rank and file. But then he looked over at his granddaughter, who was watching him intently now. He lowered his hand. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.

And then he saw the move that would bring him victory. He advanced a pawn, which would soon reach the back rank and be promoted to a Queen.  He was going to give the time enforcer and the gift of long life that came with it to his granddaughter. And someday, when Jab's time finally ran out, she would inherit Dirt's car.